It’s not often you get to drink a genuine classic cocktail made by the creator of the drink himself. Recently, Julio Bermejo, creator of the world famous Tommy’s Margarita, was in town to hold a seminar about tequila at Kuala Lumpur cocktail bar Omakase + Appreciate.
One of the world’s foremost experts on tequila, Bermejo is the beverage manager at the iconic Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, which was started in 1965 by his parents, Elmy and Tommy. Bermejo started working at the restaurant when he was five, and is instrumental in turning it into one of the most famous tequila bars in the world, as well as contributing to the rise of 100% blue agave tequila in the United States.
In 2001, Bermejo was one of the experts who travelled with the President of Mexico at the time, Vicente Fox, to Britain and France to sign agreements recognising tequila’s denomination of origin status. While in London, he was hosted by a renowned bartender named Tom Estes.
“After that session, because of the work we did, Thomas was named ambassador of tequila to Europe, and I was named the one for North America. It’s not a paid position, but we’re both passionate about the category.”
It is the creation of the Tommy’s Margarita that Bermejo is most famous for, however.
In fact, the restaurant makes so many of the margaritas that it goes through thirty-five 18kg cases of lime a week, and Bermejo has to use the jug of a blender to shake his cocktails so he can save time by making four margaritas at a time. It is a style that is so iconic that he even brings that jug along with him on his travels!
“It’s very unique to have a bar that serves only one drink. We have a full bar (at Tommy’s) but the only thing you see is tequila. 99.9% of the time, we’re making margaritas!” he said.
While the recipe is similar to that of a regular margarita, the Tommy’s uses agave nectar instead of the usual triple sec to enhance the agave flavours in the drink. Another major difference the drink had at the time was the use of 100% agave tequila instead of the usual cheap mixto tequilas (a blend of spirits made with a minimum of 51% blue agave and other non-agave sugars).
Bermejo was first introduced to 100% blue agave tequila in 1989, and it blew his mind. After that, he decided to go to Mexico to visit tequila distilleries, and learn more about tequila. Gradually, he turned the bar into a full-fledged tequila bar that only stocks 100% agave tequilas.
Then, around 1989, he was introduced to agave fructose, and began using it in the margaritas at the restaurant. And that was the start of the Tommy’s Margarita.
According to him, using agave nectar in a margarita makes sense because you are tasting flavours of the base spirit itself. “The margarita is a popular drink because people like sweet and sour. What was the ground breaker was putting agave nectar and good tequila in it. That, 30 years ago, nobody did that. And now it’s so common,” he said proudly.
The funny thing is, the drink wasn’t even known as the Tommy’s Margarita at the time. “It was always just the margarita that we sold at the restaurant. It was (renowned bartenders) Henry Besant and Dre Masso who took the Tommy’s Margarita around the world. Whenever they would consult for bars, they would teach this drink and say it was the margarita served at Tommy’s.
“It blew my mind that bars all over the world would put my drink on their menus. Dre would tell me he’s in Poland and someone has a Tommy’s Margarita on the menu! I was blown away,” he said. “Today, the Tommy’s Margarita can be enjoyed everywhere in the world. In Kuala Lumpur, Moscow, Mumbai … that’s the greatest impact in terms of a cocktail.
“I took my mother to South Africa about five years ago and we walked into a bar we had never been to, with two African bartenders there. I went up to them and asked for two Tommy’s Margaritas for me and my mother, and they said, ‘sure’. My mother almost fainted!” he recalled, laughing.
His proudest moment was when in 2006, the International Bartenders Association (IBA), the largest global association for bartenders in the world, named the Tommy’s Margarita a New Era Classic cocktail alongside, the Bramble, Espresso Martini, Cosmopolitan and Dark and Stormy.
“There are some incredible cocktails in that list, so it was unbelievable to be on it as well,” he recalled.
“We’re also the only tequila bar on the list of top 50 bars in the world, we’re the only bar outside of New York City in the US to make the list so many times, and it’s a great honour that people are taking note of the work we are doing.”
After being in the business for so long, there is one more tequila-related dream left for Bermejo – to make his own tequila. “My dream has always been to make tequila. It’s easy to criticise people, but if you have a knowledge and passion for it, go try and make it. My wife and I have been trying to build a distillery, and that’s my next dream,” he said.